What Truman can teach Bush about reorganizing the government.

The history behind current events.
June 13 2002 4:28 PM

The Truman Show

Bush's Department of Homeland Security plan is modeled on Truman's 1947 national security reorganization. Here's what Harry got wrong.

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The Joint Chiefs of Staff also turned out to be a poor vehicle for coordinating military operations—"barely adequate," as its onetime chairman, Colin Powell, has said. In Flawed by Design: The Evolution of the CIA, JCS, and NSC, political scientist Amy Zegart cites the failed 1980 effort to rescue the American hostages in Iran as one example: Because of the military's organizational structure, no single officer was responsible for planning and coordinating the effort—a systemic flaw that contributed to the disaster. Only with the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which gave the JCS chairman direct control over the Joint Chiefs, was the situation remedied. And where the JCS was hard to reform, the CIA and NSC have been impossible. Since the Soviet Union's demise, sporadic cries to abolish one or the other of these two institutions have fallen on deaf ears.

Whatever the nature of the bill that Congress ends up passing, it should include—as did the U.S.A. Patriot Act passed last fall—sunset provisions to disband or renew the new agency in several years once the terrorism threat has subsided. Otherwise we may end up a half-century from now with another hulking bureaucracy as efficient and beloved as today's CIA and NSC.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, worked at the New Republic in the early 1990s as an intern, as managing editor, and as acting editor.

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